Thursday, February 10, 2011


Point Omega was published in 2010 and is the latest novel by Don DeLillo. He has paired down his prose and narrative into a beautiful, poetic, and obscure work of mystical minimalism within a structure of barely over one hundred pages. Point Omega does not come to a simple and clear conclusion, but it does make a powerful statement about the mystery of our existence.

DeLillo has always been interested in the strangeness of America and its elements of greed, spectacle, and paranoia. DeLillo has the ability to step aside and take an objective look at America. He examines how information, consumerism, militarism, technology, and even sports have played a part in shaping the American consciousness. In DeLillo's fiction technological apparatuses such as televisions, filmic images, autos, airplanes, computers, toxic events, and nuclear bombs all have a psychological influence on the identity of the characters. Point Omega is about a desire to escape this overload of information and technology and come to point where our consciousness becomes clear, but it is probably too late as we are headed towards extinction. 

Point Omega has three sections. The first is titled Anonymity and the last is called Anonymity 2, and they bracket the longer central section. Both sections take place one day apart and they describe a scene in a gallery at the Museum of Modern Art in New York where the film installation 24 Hour Psycho by the Scottish artist Douglas Gordon is playing. Gordon has slowed down Alfred Hitchcock's masterpiece Psycho so it takes a full 24 hours from start to finish. There is no sound as the soundtrack has been removed. The screen is in the center of the gallery so the viewer can go behind and watch the film in a flipped version as well. The slightest camera movement creates a meaningful shift in time and space and everything in the film can now be analyzed in increments. The illusion of a continuous and seamless reality that is created by 24 frames of film being projected in a single second has now been defeated. Of course very few people can actually watch a film for 24 hours straight, so most of the viewers in the gallery watch from a few moments to several minutes and then move on, except for the anonymous character in DeLillo's book. He is fascinated by the film and feels you need to watch it with great concentration. He spends hours at a time in the gallery and has come on several different days. He desires to see the film from start to finish in a full 24 hour period, but the gallery and museum are not open long enough. He desires to transmigrate into the film. 

In Anonymity he sees two men who come in and watch the film for a while who will play a major role in the central section of the book. In Anonymity 2 he encounters a young woman who will also have a presence in the central section. These are revealed to the reader with a few sentences but are crucial to the narrative. The anonymous narrator also is obsessive and at times mirrors the disturbing character of Norman Bates in Psycho. At one point he imagines the guard in the gallery shooting himself in the head.

The central section consists of 4 chapters. In the first chapter Jim Finley an independent filmmaker has come to the California desert home of Richard Elster a retired academic who was brought in by the Bush administration and played a role in developing the strategy for the war in Iraq. Finley wants to make a film of Elster in one single take with only his face against a textured wall, telling his story as he wishes about his role in shaping the Iraq war. Elster is intrigued, but unsure if he wants to do it. Is this a way for him to explain and justify himself or is Finley just trying to elicit a confession? Point Omega makes a strong anti-war statement here as it describes Elster's view of the war as an abstraction and puts him in with the Neo-Cons who conceived the war in Iraq in the first place. The planners have no emotional attachment to the war, but simply move men and equipment around on a map putting their theory into practice. Elster even talks of wanting to have a Haiku war, reducing it to simple and pure act. But now he has come to the desert because of his disillusionment and guilt. He wants to get away from the world of news and traffic, from the sensory overload, and slow time down. Finley has come to convince him to do the film, but ends up staying for an extended period becoming Elster's companion.

In the second chapter Elster's daughter Jessie arrives and changes the dynamic. The book now concentrates more on the interaction between Finley and Jessie. She has been sent to her father by her mother because she is concerned about a relationship Jessie is having with a mysterious man. Elster and the mother have been long divorced and Jessie seems to have a warm but detached relationship with her father. Finley is intrigued and attracted to her and even has sexual fanatasies about her, but still finds her hard to connect with. At the end of Chapter 3 she mysteriously disappears. Was she murdered, or did she commit suicide, or did she simply get lost in the desert?

In Chapter 4 the authorities are called and they all search for the missing Jessie. Elster is so traumatized by his daughter's disappearance he becomes paralyzed and ill and Finley now become his caretaker. His movements are described by Finley in a similar way to how the images move in the slowed down film installation. A knife is found at an old bombing range near the ranch called the Impact Area. Is it a murder weapon? And of course it is a knife that is the murder weapon in Psycho. We never find out what happens to Jessie, but there are a few narrative elements brought out that suggest a couple of scenarios.

In Anonymous 2 Jessie gives her number to the anonymous man. Is he the man she has been seeing that concerns her mother? Is he a Norman Bates? Has he found her in the desert and taken her or killed her. There is also a strange sequence where Finley is alone searching for her in the desert. He talks about the vast silence but this is broken by the presence of a buzzing fly. Is this a reference to the fly in Psycho that crawls on Norman Bates at the end of the film? He also describes a scene of making love to Jessie but he is outside of himself watching. Did Finley have something to do with her disappearance?

In a way it doesn't matter because with Point Omega, DeLillo is more concerned with philosophy, timelessness, and extinction. The title of the book comes from the evolutionary philosophy of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. The Omega Point represents  the highest complexity and most fully developed consciousness towards which civilization can aspire. In a way, Point Omega is saying we are moving away from this and that we overload our consciousness with fragments of information and thought that eventually we will bring on our own extinction. In the end, Finley  drives himself and Elster out of the desert and back into the city where time speeds up and information and noise bombard our senses.

Don DeLillo published his first book Americana in 1971. The novel centers around a former television executive turned avant-garde filmmaker named David Bell. As he travels through America he creates an autobiographical road movie. The first half of the novel is a critique of the corporate world, while the second half articulates the fears and dilemmas of contemporary America. The title of the book was no accident as DeLillo wanted his literature to encompass the whole culture.

End Zone (1972) takes place at a small college in Texas and is narrated by a football player during the team's first integrated season. It is meditative and playful with the protagonist contemplating nuclear warfare and extraterrestrial life.

Great Jones Street (1973) centers on rock star Bucky Wunderlick who narrates the novel. He is dissatisified with his famous life and retreats to an unfurnished apartment on Great Jones Street in Manhattan and tries to simplify his life. The book also includes a drug that wreaks havoc on the language centers of the brain and a domestic terrorist organization.

Ratner's Star came out in 1976 and tells the story of a child prodigy mathematician who arrives at a secret installation to help decode a mysterious message that appears to come from outer space. It mixes quirky humor, science, and mathematical theories with the emotional distance and sadness people feel.

Players (1977) follows an affluent Manhattan couple whose casual boredom leads to a willing participation in chaotic detours including becoming aware of violent terrorists who are targeting Wall Street. 

Running Dog (1978) follows a journalist as she tries to infiltrate a black market of wealthy erotic art collectors in and effort to find a rumored porno film of Adolph Hitler made in his bunker in the climactic days of the fall of Berlin.

Moving into the 1980s, DeLillo started to slow down and examine what he was doing more closely. The Names came out in 1982 and was a complex thriller about a risk analyst who crosses paths with a cult of assassins in the Middle East. It is set mostly in Greece and explores many themes including the intersection of language and culture, the perception of American culture from both within and outside its borders, and the impact that narration has on the facts of a story.

In 1985, DeLillo published White Noise which brought him much acclaim by winning the National Book Award. Set in a midwestern college town, the book follows a year in the life of Jack Gladney, a professor who is pioneering the field of Hitler Studies, even though he can't speak German. He has been married five times to four women and has a brood of children and step-children. Him and his wife Babette become obsessed with death after an airborne toxic event which is caused by a chemical spill from a rail car contaminates the area in which they live. The book also involves an organization that simulates evacuations and an experimental drug called Dylar, that is a treatment for the fear of death, but has a multitude of side effects.

White Noise is encyclopedic and uses montage in its use of language describing consumerist America. The style  is quite different to the minimalism of Point Omega. It deals with many of DeLillo's themes including media saturation, novelty intellectualism, underground conspiracies, and the disintegration and re-integration of the family.

Libra was published in 1988, and is a speculative fictionalized take on the life of Lee Harvey Oswald leading up to the assassination of JFK in 1963. DeLillo researched the subject exhaustively, including reading a good portion of the Warren Commission Report. In DeLillo's version of the event the plot is intended to fail and has been instigated by disgruntled CIA operatives who see it as the only way to guide the government into a war with Cuba. Oswald is portrayed as an outcast whose communist views cause him difficulty in fitting into American society. He is not shown to be a madman but to be well-read and intelligent. The book also indicates that he is dyslexic which gives him difficulty in both writing and reading. He is not portrayed sympathetically, nor is he castigated. He is treated fairly, but is difficult to identify with.

Libra also includes other real life players in the assassination including Win Everett and Guy Banister who are presented as the chief conspirators in the plot. A parallel story follows Nicholas Branch, a CIA archivist assigned the monumental task of piecing together the disparate fragments of Kennedy's death. He concludes that the effort will be neverending and the whole truth is ultimately unknowable.

Mao II (1991) deals with the position of the novelist in a media and terrorist dominated society and was clearly influenced by the fatwa placed upon the writer Salman Rushdie and the intrusion of the press into the life of the reclusive writer J.D. Salinger. The book's main plot centers around the kidnapping of a novelist by a Maoist terrorist group. The prologue reveals a major theme of the book that the future belongs to crowds. The opening scene is an amazing description of a mass-wedding of the Unification Church at Yankee Stadium. Mao II refers to a series of prints of Mao by Andy Warhol.

In 1997, DeLillo published his magnum opus Underworld. It is considered his masterpiece by many and won several awards and is considered one of the finest novels of the 20th Century. Underworld is an 832 page novel that spans 41 years of American life and incorporates baseball, Lenny Bruce, J. Edgar Hoover, nuclear test sites, and the New York Giants beating the Brooklyn Dodgers on Bobby Thompson's infamous home run at the Polo Grounds in 1951. Underworld's first 60 pages describe this event in amazing detail. The Soviets had nuclear bomb tests on the same day and both stories played out in the newspapers the next day. The baseball that Thompson hit appears throughout the novel and ties the various sections together. There is another great descriptive passage by DeLillo of the Fresh Kills Landfill in Staten Island. The title came to DeLillo as he thought about the radioactive waste below the ground. The waste and byproducts of history are constantly dissected and discussed throughout the novel and resurface from the underworld, or subconscious of the American people who would rather bury the things they don't want to confront.

DeLillo has produced 4 novels since Underworld and are smaller and less ambitious, but he has stated that the books dictate themselves and perhaps eventually a grander book will come again. In my opinion less can be more and for me Point Omega is a near perfect book. It is paired down to the essence.

The Body Artist (2001) is a novella barely over 100 pages and explores the grieving of a young performance artist following the sudden death of her older husband. It deals with Freud's theory of melancholia and is sometimes described as a ghost story.

Cosmopolis (2003) is influenced by Joyce's Ulysses and covers one day of time and includes the theme of a father-son separation. It is about a billionaire asset manager who makes an odyssey across Midtown Manhattan in order to get a haircut. He travels in a luxury stretch limo that is outfitted with television screens and computer monitors, bulletproofed and floored with marble. His Voyage is obstructed by various traffic jams, funeral processions, and a demonstration that turns into a riot. He has sex with women including his wife and is stalked by potential assassins. Through the course of the day he loses huge amounts of money for his clients by betting against the rise of the yen. By the end of the day he has come to financial ruin.

Falling Man was published in 2007 and concerns the impact on one family of the 9/11 terror attacks on the World Trade Center. It is an intimate story encompassed by a global event. It opens with an amazing description of a man emerging from the dust and chaos in downtown Manhattan. The protagonist tries to resume his domestic routine but his existence has been altered and he now must change the direction of his life. The title refers to a performance artist who while wearing business attire suspends himself upside-down with a rope and harness in the pose of the man in the famous photograph of the same name taken by the photographer Richard Drew.

This leads us back to Point Omega.

No comments:

Post a Comment